How Pat Robertson helped shape the radical Christian nationalism Barry Goldwater warned against

How Pat Robertson helped shape the radical Christian nationalism Barry Goldwater warned against
The Rev. Pat Robertson in 1986 (Creative Commons)

On Thursday, June 8, the Rev. Pat Robertson — a far-right Christian fundamentalist and the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the Christian Coalition — died in Virginia Beach at the age of 93. Robertson was a controversial figure in U.S. politics and within Christianity, but he was also highly influential. And he helped shape the radical Christian nationalism that the late conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) vehemently warned against more than 40 years ago.

Robertson founded CBN in 1961, launching his program "The 700 Club" several years later. But it wasn't until the early 1980s that he became so influential in the Republican Party. Along with the late Moral Majority founder the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Pentecostal evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Robertson was a major supporter of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign and helped the Religious Right gain considerable influence in the Republican Party.

It wasn't influence that Goldwater welcomed. The Arizona senator was part of Reagan's right-wing coalition, but he viewed the Religious Right as dangerous and saw far-right evangelicals like Robertson, Falwell and Swaggart as toxic for the conservative movement. President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign painted Goldwater as a war-mongering extremist in the 1964 presidential election; during the 1980s, Goldwater's vehement opposition to the Religious Right made him an unlikely ally of liberals and progressives and a favorite among right-wing libertarians.

READ MORE: 'Flag-waving' liberal Norman Lear, now 100, warns against the 'threat of authoritarianism' America faces

Goldwater warned, "Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the (Republican) Party — and they're sure trying to do so — it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."

Goldwater's warning was downright prophetic. From the early 1980s on, the Religious Right has maintained a stranglehold on the GOP. Conservative Republicans who openly oppose the Religious Right the way that Goldwater did will not get very far in a Republican presidential primary.

Robertson himself ran for president in 1988, ultimately losing the GOP nomination to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. As Robertson's supporters saw it, Bush 41 wasn't far enough to the right. Regardless, Bush enjoyed a decisive victory over the Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis, in the general election.

Goldwater had nothing against Christianity per se, either Protestant or Catholic. But he believed that Robertson and Falwell embodied a very dangerous, fanatical and intolerant strain of religious fundamentalism. And many years after Goldwater's death, Donald Trump was more than happy to encourage that fanaticism during his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Trump sees far-right white evangelicals as crucial to his success in the 2024 election.

READ MORE: 'A very frightening period': MAGA Republicans threaten librarians with prison time

In an op-ed published by CNN's website on June 9, historian Nicole Hemmer emphasizes that Robertson helped pave the way for the MAGA movement.

"One of Robertson's most lasting legacies was in the world of politics," Hemmer explains. "Running in the Republican presidential primary in 1988, Robertson pioneered a new style of candidacy that would open the door to presidential hopefuls like Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump. Long before Trump leapt from reality television to the Oval Office, Robertson showed how a celebrity with no political experience could launch a national political campaign."

Hemmer notes that Robertson's Christian Coalition "became a powerful political force after absorbing the leftover funds of the Robertson campaign — and the millions of names and addresses Robertson had collected while he ran for president."

"Robertson also became a vector for vivid conspiracy theories on the right," Hemmer observes. "His bestselling book 'The New World Order,' published in 1991, played off Bush's use of the phrase in a speech a year earlier. But rather than simply bash Bush, the book covered every internationalist conspiracy imaginable. Apocalyptic, paranoid and popular, Robertson's conspiracy tract tapped a rich vein of right-wing religion and politics — one that continues to feed the party today…. No assessment of the (Republican) Party's march away from democracy and into demagoguery can be understood without understanding Robertson's role."

After Robertson's death, liberal Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent discussed his influence with historian Rick Perlstein, author of the 2020 book, "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980."

Perlstein told Sargent, "Robertson's vision buttresses the entire edifice of right-wing evangelical America, in particular his institution-building work creating alternatives to supposedly demonic secular liberal America…. When you think about a right-winger living within the bubble of Fox News, that was pioneered by the Christian Broadcasting Network. The force behind this was 100-percent Pat Robertson. The role of these kinds of institutions in birthing the modern right was that it became a self-supporting world of its own — an entire parallel reality."

READ MORE: How Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, Sr. helped pave the way for Trumpism and the white nationalist horrors of the Trump era

Read Nicole Hemmer's CNN op-ed at this link and find Greg Sargent's Washington Post column here (subscription required).

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}
@2023 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by